Let us sit upon the ground and speak of the death of magazines.
One of the dark jokes among reporters is that photographers and cameramen often get themselves killed because they see the dangerous situation they are in only through a viewfinder — and the detachment that little sliver of glass provides gives them an unwarranted sense of invulnerability.
The camera jockeys think they are still observers, when in fact they are participants. They only find out the truth when it is too late. Of course, the joke is also on us reporters, because we are just as blind to our own precariousness.
I've just felt the sting of that punch line in my own career. In the span of a single day, I watched helplessly as two magazines I helped create — Upside and Forbes ASAP — died before my eyes.
What made the news burn even more was that, literally hours later, the busted stock market at last began show signs of new life. I feel like the doughboy who took the final bullet on Armistice Day, 1918. Just one more day and I would have survived …
The Downside for 'Upside'
Upside, founded a dozen years ago, pre-dated even Wired as the first magazine of the new economy. Originally targeted at Silicon Valley, Upside was designed by its founders, Rich Karlgaard (now publisher of Forbes) and Tony Perkins (publisher of Red Herring) as a scurrilous, muckraking-type magazine: sort of Spy-meets-Fortune.
For several reasons, I had a soft spot in my heart for Upside long after I stopped writing for it. First, from the beginning its editorial style was consciously patterned after the writing I was doing at the time for the San Jose Mercury-News — and there's no greater honor for a writer than that.
Second, I authored some of the most infamous cover stories for the publication (most notoriously "Has Silicon Valley Gone Pussy?" — which I will never ever live down). And finally, because Upside serialized a novel of mine, The Bitch Goddess, my first major piece of fiction.
Upside had become a shadow of its former self long before it died, superseded by the star magazines of the era, such as Industry Standard and the original Business 2.0. Its cheekiness, too, paled against its online descendants such as F---edCompany.com.
By the time the magazine took its last breath, even once-loyal readers were surprised to hear that it still existed. Nevertheless, for me at least, it was hard to see Upside go, if only because the magazine was a perpetual reminder of the cocky, outrageous young writer I once was.
Taking on the Big Issues
The death of Forbes ASAP stung much more deeply.
It, too, had been founded by Rich Karlgaard, and was just coming up on its 10th anniversary. In terms of quality — and, among journalists at least, in terms of influence — ASAP was the best magazine of the tech era. It didn't start out that way — I cringe looking at the geekiness of the early issues — but by the mid-1990s, it was probably the best technology magazine of them all.
This was especially true once each year in the magazine's Big Issue, where we took a single theme (Time, Convergence, Truth) and went out and got the best writers alive to tackle it in essays, memoirs and stories.
Looking back, the list of those writers is astonishing — Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Wolfe, John Updike, E.O. Wilson, Stephen Ambrose, Peggy Noonan, Seamus Heaney, Stephen Jay Gould, Cszelaw Milosz, Gore Vidal, Jacques Barzun, even Muhammad Ali.
No one had attempted anything like this since Esquire in the 1960s. And the result was some of the best essays of the era … all from an electronics "trade" magazine. Little wonder that I was told by some of my competitors that their fondest career wish was to someday edit the Big Issue.
As a freelancer, I spent six years writing for ASAP in what was at best a prickly relationship. Then, out of the blue, I was asked to edit the magazine. This was at the beginning of the dot-com boom, and my three years in that job was like riding a runaway horse. The magazine seemed to double in size every issue, and all we could do was scramble to keep up. We worked endless hours — and made our parent company millions.
Dot-Com Lost Its Head, But ASAP Never Did
Still, probably because we were staffed with veteran journalists, we never really lost track of reality — unlike many of the other new economy magazines, whose much younger staffs honestly believed the bubble could expand forever.
Besides the Big Issues, I'm most proud of the then-controversial February 2000 issue, when we put a guillotine on the cover and warned the world that the crash was coming. Unfortunately, we were right … and we can take some satisfaction in knowing that while others lost their heads, we fulfilled our duty to our readers.
In retrospect, Forbes ASAP was doomed almost from the start. We were never as inflated in our growth as, say, Industry Standard, so we didn't suffer such a precipitous death-spiral when the advertising base collapsed. But Forbes also never fully freed ASAP from its constraints as a "supplement" to the larger magazine until it was too late.
We were like the child that is never allowed to break loose and build a life of its own — but must remain until middle age at the mercy of an aging and invalided parent. When the magazine industry fell into its worst recession in 75 years, we had no choice but to lean back on the support of our parent magazine … and there was nothing there.
Amid Closing, The Last Laugh
You can't live in Silicon Valley without having heard a thousand stories about how organizations die. Some, ancient and forgotten, just fade away. Others, like many of the dot-coms, suddenly implode, leaving the survivors stunned and howling at the rottenness of it all.
I'm pleased say that we took the news quietly and with a certain fatalism. We all sensed it was coming: The team I'd built, at this point run by my successor, was composed of veterans, some with 30 years of experience in magazine journalism. We all knew the signs: the e-mails that didn't get replies, the budgets that weren't getting approved, the carefully phrased conversations with senior management.
And so, with very little surprise, we found ourselves, the last remnants of what had been the largest-circulation tech business magazine in history, sitting around a single table in a conference room, awaiting the doleful lady from corporate HR.
We weren't our G.I. parents, stunned at being robbed of a pension, or our Gen X children, furious that we hadn't grown rich in our 20s. Rather, we were mostly just a bunch of middle-aged pros who knew the drill and understood that there was more to life than any single job.
We reminded each other of what we had accomplished. How we had done some of the finest work of our lives on this magazine. How we had presided over some of the best journalism of our era. How that work would live on in books, classrooms and on television. And how, in the process, we'd become a family that could endure even being torn apart.
And then we started laughing. And we were still laughing when the sad-faced HR lady came into the room to tell us our fate.
I now find myself in the position of the writers I read about as a boy, with their references to jobs at long lost-magazines like Liberty and True. Now I have just such a biography.
I know that in the months ahead, as the economy begins to pick up speed, as the few surviving magazines in our category become the beneficiaries of the advertising that would have been ours, that I'll have a few moments of bitterness.
At those times I'll wish, as I ponder the history of the last six months, that like a good editor I could pick up the phone and shout, "Get me rewrite."
Michael S. Malone, once called “the Boswell of Silicon Valley,” most recently was editor-at-large of Forbes ASAP magazine. His work as the nation’s first daily high-tech reporter at the San Jose Mercury-News sparked the writing of his critically acclaimed The Big Score: The Billion Dollar Story of Silicon Valley, which went on to become a public TV series. He has written several other highly praised business books and a novel about Silicon Valley, where he was raised. For more, go to Forbes.com.